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Friday, December 08, 2006
Revenge of the Groupies, 46 years later

The type of story you don't see everyday:

An 81-year-old Texas woman named Ruby Y. Young was arrested last week on federal charges relating to letters she had sent to Hall-of-Fame Packers Quarterback Bart Starr (HT: Deadspin). According to a criminal affidavit, Young sent Starr, now 72, several letters demanding that he pay her $ 2 million or she would go to the media with reports of an "encounter" that they had in 1960.

From Deadspin, one letter reads, in part:

"And now, the time has come for you to pay -- to pay for the many injuries you caused me. ... No I am not a push-over Mr. Starr -- and no, I do not need the money -- but I intend to see that you pay for your wrong doings (sic) to me ...," said the first letter, dated Oct. 30, 2006, which an agent quoted in part in the affidavit. "How much is it worth to preserve this 'image' presented to the public these many years of who and what you are?"

"I am going to be vindicated one way or another," Young's first letter said, according to the affidavit. "You know very well that any and all tabloids, TV news casters (sic) such as ABC, CBS, NBC, would simply devour this story. ... And thereby, I would collect money from these sources. But, I first want to give you the chance to pay me back in dollars rather than exposure."

Among criminal law and free-speech theorists, the rational for the legal prohibition on extortion is something of a mystery. Think about it. Ms. Young had 4 options. She could have:

1) Gone to the press with the details of whatever Starr did to her. Nothing criminal about that. And nothing legally wrong with that if her story is true. If the story is false and she knew it was false when she said it, she might be liable for civil damages for defamation (I think Starr remains a public figure), assuming Starr decided to sue rather than letting the issue go away.

2) Sued Starr for $ 2 million based on whatever improper acts caused her injury. She might lose the suit, either because the claims lack merit and/or because the claims are 46 years old and the statute of limitations has expired (not many civil claims have 50-year limitations periods). And, if the suit is frivolous (i.e., laughably weak and totally lacking any and all merit), she might be subject to sanctions by the court, including having to pay Starr's attorney fees. On the other hand, bringing the lawsuit might have compelled Starr to settle to make the issue go away.

3) Threatened to do # 2 as a way to force a monetary settlement in advance. If done through an attorney and in a non-threatening way, such pre-suit notice and negotiation is actually favored.

4) Sent letters threatening to do # 1 unless Starr gave her what she could seek by doing # 2 (which is what she did).

All four have the same purpose and effect of giving Starr a choice between paying money or having the details of the ancient encounter publicized. But only # 4 is subject to criminal prosecution. And, as the prosecutor in the case noted, that is true regardless of the truth or falsity of Young's story.

The best theoretical arguments talk about the loss of autonomy, of free choice, that extortion inflicts on its victims. But it is an interesting dichotomy for theorists.


Yes, the blackmail paradox...

1. Free speech rights allow me to publish embarassing information about someone (in many cases).

2. There's nothing immoral or illegal about asking for money in exchange for a service (in most cases).

3. But when 1 and 2 are combined, we call it blackmail and make it illegal. How can it be that the combination of two legal acts could make something illegal?

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